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Before the Internet existed, people used reference books to find answers to many of their questions. Reference books are still widely used, especially when doing research. Learn how to analyze and interpret them in this lesson.

Reference Books

If you’ve ever wanted to know the population of a city or country, get a brief overview of a political leader, or learn how climate change has affected a particular region, you could’ve used a reference book to find out. I know many of us tend to ask our smart phones or Google an answer, but if the Internet wasn’t working or if you had to use actual books to find the answer in a class, you would have to pull out one of these big books.

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Reference books are actually really user friendly. You just have to understand how they are organized.They aren’t meant to be read cover to cover like a novel. Instead, you can flip through them, find what you need, apply that to what you’re studying or analyze the information to understand concepts even better.To be more specific, a reference book is a book consulted for specific matters. It contains useful or specially organized information.

Examples include an encyclopedia, a dictionary, an almanac, and an atlas.Material in a reference book is typically organized in alphabetical order so that topics can be located quickly. An index is usually provided to serve as a guide to the thousands of topics found in that book, or to locate the smaller subtopics of the larger subjects.Reference books also have a cross reference to help readers out.

A cross reference guides the readers from the subject entry that is not used to one that is or to where related information is located. In an index for an encyclopedia, it often says ‘See also…’ For example, in the index of a book about Nobel Laureates it might say, ‘See also Mandela, Nelson’. Or within the text, it might say ‘Allies: See Allied Powers’.Also, at the end of articles in reference books a bibliography is usually provided.

This can help you find more sources, which is great when doing research papers.Let’s now take a closer look at the different types of reference books.

Encyclopedias

An encyclopedia can provide a general overview on a subject, or you can consult a more specific type of encyclopedia that has more detailed information on one specific topic. A more general encyclopedia would be the World Book Encyclopedia of People and Places, while the Encyclopedia of American Crime or the Astronomy Encyclopedia would be more specific examples.It’s important to know:

  • Articles in encyclopedias are typically arranged in alphabetical order and are signed by the authors.
  • You want to use the subject index first because it shows which volume to look in and on what pages you can find a particular subject.

  • While it’s great to be able to use the Internet to do research, there are tons of websites that provide false information or don’t cite their sources, so it’s hard to know if it’s reliable. Encyclopedias are trusted reference books that can really help jumpstart research.

Dictionaries

A dictionary is a reference book that provides the definition of words and what part of speech they are through an abbreviation such as ‘n.’ for ‘noun’ or ‘adj.

‘ for ‘adjective’. It also typically gives the origin of words and the way they are pronounced by using phonics.There are monolingual dictionaries (meaning they list the words and their meanings in the same language) bilingual dictionaries (such as an English-Spanish dictionary, to help language learners translate words), and even multilingual dictionaries, which translate words and their meanings into two or more languages.

Almanacs

An almanac is an annual reference book of useful and interesting facts and statistics that relate to countries, sports, entertainment, etc. There are a variety of almanacs, such as the World Almanac, the Almanac of American Politics, and the Weather Almanac.Looking at this sample page from the World Almanac, we can see that it’s providing information on how many people practice specific religions, and it’s an overview of six continents’ populations:

Sample page from the World Almanac
Sample map legend
sample map legend

We can use that legend to analyze what we see, such as how the peach color shows that North America’s croplands and grasslands are primarily located in the central region and that this area is not heavily populated since it lacks red, which represents urban, built-up areas.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review what we just covered. A reference book is a book consulted for specific matters. It contains useful or specially organized information. Examples include an encyclopedia, a dictionary, an almanac, and an atlas.

For background information, consult an encyclopedia. To find a word’s definition or origin, use a dictionary. If you’re asking ‘How much?’ or ‘How many?’, that’s a statistical type of question, so consult an almanac. For geographical information, use an atlas.

In an encyclopedia, a cross reference guides the reader from the subject entry that is not used to one that is, or to where related information is located.An almanac is an annual reference book of useful and interesting facts and statistics that relate to countries, sports, entertainment, etc.When consulting an atlas, use the map legend. A map legend is a table on a map, chart, or the like, listing and explaining the symbols used.

Learning Outcomes

After you’ve completed this lesson, you’ll have the ability to:

  • Identify the purpose of reference books
  • Describe different types of reference books
  • Explain how to use an encyclopedia and an atlas

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